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In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 54: Almost A Letdown

    The load display on Great Mandan Laker’s windshield was a three-dimensional representation of the cargo hold. As the ship was loaded, small blue orbs slowly filled the image, each of which denoted a few cubic feet of cargo space. Complicated sensor arrays in the cargo hold monitored exactly where the load settled, so the image was an accurate representation of the state of the hold and allowed the crew to monitor the load balance.
    Blue orbs slowly winked into existence as Joseph rotated the image with one finger. The slow pace agitated him, especially with the hold nearly full. Four Machines had been faster by far.
    A nervous day and a half had passed at Kalleta Asteroid Mine, and they learned nothing new from repeated inspections of their recorded footage. The sensors on the hull had not tripped for anything but the occasional large rock. Every time they went off a jolt of fear went through Joseph as he checked for the source of the alert, only to watch a piece of debris approach slowly, bounce off the shields and arc away.
    Fear that they might be attacked after all lurked at the back of his mind, and each such event brought it to the fore. The nervous waiting of the past hours was worse for him than the attack on the corvette. That had been over quickly by comparison, and he’d been occupied with the fight. Here the hours dragged on in endless suspense.
    Gregory drummed his fingers on the console at his station as he mirrored Joseph’s impatient watch over the monitor. The hold was nearly full, and after a day and a half of anxiety, they were all ready to leave.
    “Could it possibly go any slower?” Gregory grated.
    “Don’t ask that.” Joseph was determined to keep his tone mild. “I’m sure it can, and I don’t want any proof. Just sit quietly and wait. I’ll admit it didn’t aggravate me nearly as much a few hours ago when there was still a lot of hold to fill.”
    Gregory gave a displeased grunt. “Could I sit quietly and curse every decision those miners made that led to three broken-down feeder systems instead?”
    “Sure, I’ll settle for that. As long as the cursing is internal.”
    Gregory subsided, but glared at the load display with even less patience than before.
    Everyone was tense, even those not on the bridge to watch the agonizing pace of the work. Thirty-some hours at the station to load was already a long wait, and their dangerous discovery made it worse. Despite the many circumstances they’d discussed that would dissuade any pirates from an attack on Laker, everyone worried they would do it anyway.
    Joseph did his best to appear unconcerned, or at least calm. Most of the time he succeeded at that, only because he ran down the list of reasons pirates wouldn’t want to attack them. Over and over he recited it in his head in an attempt to persuade himself there would be no attack. Yet he also knew he shouldn’t persuade himself, so that his guard would remain up.
    “It should only be another thirty minutes.” Joseph took the pilot’s position and scrolled through the ship systems. “I’ll call the others up. We should be ready to leave as soon as we’re done, and under the circumstances I want everyone on the bridge this time.”
    “Roger that. Best for everyone to be ready, just in case we have trouble after all.”
    One by one the others joined Joseph and Gregory on the bridge, seating themselves at one of the stations. Joseph noted that everyone strapped in without him even suggesting it, despite the absence of that precaution for normal flights. Artificial gravity and the inertial drive could be relied on to take care of the forces that would otherwise throw them around the ship. The exception was hard maneuvers, which usually didn’t happen with Laker. This time it was a possibility.
    Finally the hold reached the appointed amount of cargo. Every crew member sighed with relief as the sound of ore pouring into the hold slowed and ceased. Long as it had taken, they were finally loaded and ready to go.

    The station hailed them. “Our instruments show we’ve reached the delivery quantity.” Someone new manned the station control room now, the voice was unfamiliar. “Does the load match your records?”
    Joseph glanced at the shipment documents he had on one monitor to make sure. “Yes, it does.”
    “Good. I’m releasing the hopper clamps. There’s no traffic around the station and we’re not expecting any besides yourselves, so you’re clear to leave whenever you’re ready. If you need to change your flight path for any reason go ahead, no need to check with us. Have a good flight back.”
    “Thank you.” The channel closed and metallic thuds echoed through the hull as the station let go of the ship. Joseph released their clamps, edged her away from the hopper and accelerated.
    “Not losing any time are you?” Rebecca observed.
    “Nope, no reason to linger,” Joseph agreed. “We got what we came for, and more. Why wait around to see if anything else jumps out at us?” Still, he made an effort not to accelerate harder than he normally would. He didn’t want to make the station suspicious.
    “I’ll get some telescopes focused on that cup once we’re above the asteroid’s rim,” Samuel volunteered from the top tier of bridge stations. “We might get a better look at a few of the ships as we leave, since our outbound flight path is at a different angle.”
    “Good thinking.” Joseph kept his eyes on where the ship was headed as he spoke. They were still tight against the station since their exit path was on the opposite side, and it was a particularly bad place for careless flying. “Everyone keep your weapon controls handy as well. I know I said an attack was unlikely and I stand by it, but I want to be ready in case I’m wrong.”
    Great Mandan Laker rose above the asteroid where they had a clear few of the cups again. Out of the corner of his eye Joseph saw there were still ships around the small cup. They were too far distant for him to see clearly and he still needed to fly, so he didn’t look very closely. Samuel could take care of that.
    Joseph started across the asteroid’s surface soon after they were over the rim. He leveled the ship out, but she still drifted upward and a warning light on the pilot’s console advised him of it. He made no effort to correct that, wanting as much distance from the station as they could get. The drift helped them in this case anyway. It would carry them up fast enough to clear the station’s largest cup before they reached it, which was convenient since it was directly between them and their jump point.
    “Nothing’s moving on the station surface,” Charlie reported as they flew over. “I’d say that’s a good sign.”
    “There are still ships around that cup, but they’re as immobile as before,” Samuel said. “They moved one at some point while we were docked. There are only five now.”
    “Are you sure?” Rebecca asked. Joseph could hear her strain against her straps, trying to see Samuel’s screens. “Could we just be at the wrong angle to see it?”
    “I’m sure. We can see the position where it was parked during our approach. It’s gone.”
    “Moved into the cup perhaps,” Gordon said. “That would fit quite well with our theory that pirates use that small cup in some way, whether as warehouses or to hide captured ships.”
    “The warehouse theory probably works better, if that’s where it went,” Charlie said.
    “Which ship was it?” Joseph asked.
    “That one that was all separate sections connected by girders,” Samuel said. “The one you found the Cyrillic characters on.”
    “Did we ever figure out what that said?”
    “No, we realized after a while that a lot of the spaces were actually missing characters. The computer didn’t have enough to figure out what the words were. It’s possible they were proper nouns that the language software didn’t have, but I think it was just a matter of too many missing letters.”
    The freighter crossed the station without incident. Joseph wondered if all their worry was completely misplaced. Well, it certainly wasn’t all misplaced, but hopefully the concern they’d be attacked before they could leave Kalleta was. That would mean a smooth trip to their delivery and beyond.
    A trouble-free freight run was hard to argue with. After all, he’d gotten into this business to make money. He was willing to take more risk than most out here in the fringe systems, but firefights with pirates was an incidental hazard, not a goal.
    The minutes dragged by as they accelerated away from the station. No attack came, and as the control room officer promised no inquiries of any kind came from the mine. They probably weren’t even paying attention to the freighter anymore. It was entirely predictable, and yet Joseph hardly dared to believe it. They’d really gotten wound up about those ships.
    “No signs of pursuit and no ships anywhere in the system besides us, as far as I can see.” Nathan laughed from his station. “The mine is completely unchanged too. Business as usual. Looks like we had nothing to worry about.”
    Several of the others laughed weakly, Joseph couldn’t quite tell who. There was a notable shift in atmosphere on the bridge, from nervous tension to pleased relief. Joseph’s was tinged with exasperation as well; after all their worrying, it was almost a disappointment that nothing happened. That thought doubtless originated from his reckless side, and he tried immediately to squelch it.
    “Well thank God for that,” Gregory commented. “We’re almost to the jump point, we’re in the clear.”
    “I’m almost angry they put us through all that for no reason,” Rebecca said
    “Sort of, but really we put ourselves through it. They didn’t think we suspected anything, even though we mentioned the ships.”
    “Either that or they decided it would be more risky to do something about it than just hope nobody follows up on what we found,” Nathan said.
    “That’s not very likely. That nobody will follow up I mean.” Rebecca added the second sentence after an awkward pause. Someone must have given her a funny look. “Whatever we stumbled on here looks fairly big, and we’ll report it to two countries. One of them is sure to take notice.”
    “Can’t disagree with you there, and they may pass it on to more nations besides.” There was the soft sound of a latch release from Nathan’s station, and Joseph heard the restraints clatter to the sides. “I’m just glad Kalleta thought otherwise. More likely they’re betting we don’t think there is anything to report.”
    Joseph cut off that line of conversation to announce that they would enter faster-than-light travel in one minute. “On to Islinglonde, and hopefully a less stressful stay planetside.”
    “We’re out of the woods now then,” Gregory said. “We got ourselves pretty worked up.”
    “Don’t get comfortable yet, there are still plenty of ways we could be attacked,” Charlie warned. “We’re out of any immediate danger, but keep an eye on nearby space.”
    The windshield tint adjusted as the FTL drive launched them forward. Joseph’s gut unclenched as the artificially muted glow of faster-than-light travel consumed their view of space. He felt safer, though he knew very well they were still vulnerable to attack. Attention no longer required on the helm, he unlocked his chair and turned to face the crew.
    “That went more or less as expected,” Charlie said. “What’s our next step?”
    Everyone looked at Joseph, and he suppressed a flash of chagrin. He was the captain, it was natural that he’d be expected to provide that answer. Nobody forced him to buy a ship and hire a crew.
    “Let’s review what we recorded as we left and see if we picked up anything useful. I’ll start a report to send on to the Teton Sector Border Patrol. It will be a day or so yet before we get in range of the Instant Communication Network. Let’s get our information as complete as we can. It’ll save us followup calls later.”
    Samuel nodded and started playback on his screen. “That would be good, since we’ll go out of range again before long. They might get annoyed when they can’t get hold of us.”
    “Probably,” Joseph agreed. “Any missing information will slow them down, and I don’t want that. I want them to get to the bottom of whatever this is before anyone asks us to come back here.”

Published: April 7 2019

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